CHEN CHIEH-JEN: PRAXIS IN THE HOBBESIAN DREAM
TAIWAN’S MARTIAL LAW provisions included laws clearly suppressing assembly, demonstrations, and the forming of organizations. Nonetheless, one afternoon on a holiday in 1983, five youths appeared on Ximending Street dressed in white khaki pants and wearing cotton bags over their heads. They walked, shoulder-to-shoulder, from the Red House to the Wannian Theater, attracting the attention of a growing crowd of onlookers and putting the police headquarters and reserve plainclothes officers on alert. When they arrived at their destination, they immediately began howling and screaming as if they were in great pain, except for one of the men, who quietly lay supine on the ground. That man was Chen Chieh-jen. At the time, he was 23 years old, and he had just finished his compulsory military service. He had planned the demonstration and titled it Loss of Function #3. Chen uses the word “appearance” to describe this sort of experience of spirit and space, and he asserts that the demonstration constituted a breakthrough in terms of his personal consciousness and internal coherence. He says that in the moment of acting in accordance with his ideals across the boundary between legal and illegal, a powerful feeling of tranquility sprang from his personal liberation. The necessity of this sort of physical transgressional; corporeal experiment gradually coalesced into a key component of his art: viscerality.
HAPPINESS BUILDING I, HONG KONG EDITION
Chen Chieh-jen’s new work, Happiness Building I, is on display in Hong Kong’s Hanart Square. The work diverges from his simultaneous photo/video exhibition at the 2012 Taipei Biennial (“Modern Monster/ Death and Life of Fiction”) and his video installation at the Guangzhou Triennial (“The Unseen”). The emphasis of the “presentation of configuration” in the Hong Kong work lies on the enactment of archives (1). Chen’s discourse is an exhibition of the “production process case file.” Aside from an 80-minute video loop, the exhibition also includes photographs documenting various work situations, audio recordings of the accounts of various people involved in the story, and some related documents and literature. The result is a display of personal experience and collective memory that complements the video and reminds visitors to examine the history and labor of the production process. It is also the artist’s carefully crafted punctum: the visual ghosts of the two-dimensional, archive-style photographs have a suggestive quality that triggers in viewers a strange sense of familiarity. This strangeness arises from the confusion formed by the meticulously calculated details and symbols within the picture plane. Moreover, the incompleteness of the overall narrative structure contributes to a Verfremdungseffekt akin to the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht. A surreal quantity of industrial waste forms the backdrop of an anonymous and vacant large building, and the movements of the anonymous people in front of the lens seem aimless and solitary, in concert with their emotionless personal historical accounts.
This series of visual experiences unfolds at an excessively languid pace, compelling viewers to inspect each detail of each picture plane. The pace also limits the viewer’s empathetic tendencies. The fragmented narrative structure and alienating style of transmission preclude the possibility of resonance. The critical observational space that Chen Chieh-jen creates in the video serves to allow the viewer to acknowledge the subject of him by herself and confront the rationalizations of the contemporary society of spectacle. Perceptual logic and desires, infiltrated by power, are liberated. As a consequence, the series of alienating experiences projected at visitors in Happiness Building I produce a dialectical interrogation that invokes a unique capacity for critical reflection. In this case, “appearance” highlights perceptions that for one reason or another tend to fly under the radar, such as the contrast between black-and-white, handheld camerawork and color, dolly-mounted and regular filming. The contrast between these visual experiences indirectly strengthens the theatrical display of the black-and-white scenes, particularly the process of moving luggage recorded toward the end of the loop. Chen purposefully employs high- speed filming techniques to capture the details of dynamic situations. The result is a slow-motion picture plane that is both smooth and dragging. These unusual visuals contribute to the viewer’s sense of indeterminacy. The fragmented narratives and images achieve apt cognitive gaps that must be bridged by imagination. These images concretize the poetic vacillations of the exhibition. It is this indeterminacy, experienced by the viewer at a cognitive level as he or she processes the information, that contains the poetic nature of Chen’s work. Indeed, the dynamism of Chen’s art lies in the capacity of the poetic to emerge from the nebulous. Thus Chen extends the “appearance” he experienced in 1983 to an audience. So-called viscerality is reborn in the viewer’s moment of personal liberation: the instant in which the viewer realizes the independent relationship between his or her subjectivity and the outside world.
THE BODY, ADRIFT ON EARTH
In 2007, the critic and performance artist Wang Mo-lin published an essay in Film Appreciation titled “On Space and the Body in the Work of Chen Chieh-jen.” He describes the use of the performing body to portray the hollowness of labor as “a Sisyphean tragedy.” However, the collective work situation, composed of a provisional assemblage of workers in Happiness Building I, adds a layer of narrative depth to the exercise of manual labor. The life experience shared by the person behind the camera melds with the enactment that takes place in front of the camera with a physical rhythm reminiscent of Super Citizen Ko, directed in 1995 by Taiwan’s newly-minted cinematic ace, Wan Jen. That film follows the repentant journey of Ko Yi-cheng, a victim of Taiwan’s anti-communist White Terror. The claustrophobic tone and narration of the film culminates in the final scene, in which the protagonist finds himself in a bamboo grove of unmarked graves and white candles. The quavering old man, having survived decades in prison as well as decades in a retirement facility, leans on his walking stick. He is searching for the final resting place of a friend who endured the same history, whom he informed on and who was consequently condemned. He speaks his words of atonement: “Mr. Chen, I’ve come to see you.” The flickering candlelight, reflected in the tear tracks on his face, illuminate the conclusion of his journey: a process of self-redemption and self-liberation.
“The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” writes Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations Part II. This statement expresses Wittgenstein’s understanding of the relationship between perception and thought, and encourages the reader to embrace the physical experience of nonverbal expression. Only those who recognize the importance of physical sense can more deeply discuss the experience of viscerality. Chen’s work presents the body in a variety of contexts, including imagination, labor, action, reflexivity, and self-pirating performance pieces (see I Pirate My Own Work: Free Donation Project [2007-present], in which cheap DVDs of Chen’s past work are sold at the exhibition space), to the extent that the artist’s body constitutes a physical counterpoint to the artist himself.
In contrast to the elite socio-economic status accorded to contemporary artists, Chen Chieh- jen chooses to use creativity to put himself in the position of the oppressed. He utilizes their body language, which is neither resistant nor pathetic, and employs the filming process to renew a freedom of expression that has been plundered by capitalist authority or cultural hegemony. In Factory, Chen illegally enters the Lien Fu Garment Factory, which was sealed by the government after suddenly closing down without warning. He appropriates the discarded space for his film, in which elderly women who once worked at the factory reenact and exhibit the details of their lives as laborers—lives that were erased when their employment was terminated. The process of creating and showing the film produces a narrative structure of history revisited. In these works, visceral existence is not hollow; rather, it is manifest in the physical sense of the reciprocal subjectivity of artist and viewer brought forth by deferred images.
In addition to the suitcases strewn around Happiness Building I, there is also an inverted section of steel roofing. It is positioned opposite a relatively frail human figure, symbolizing how in the neoliberal age human life is suspended as if pedaling in air. It evokes the inhuman society described in Hobbes’ Leviathan: a society with no social contract, in which the tools of state power are abused. This is a manifestation of the idea of the body adrift on earth. In the color scenes of the film, individuals recount being adrift. In contrast, the grayscale scenes show various figures working together to move the suitcases. Due to Chen’s use of highspeed filming, the workers and objects in the film emanate a sense of surreal weightlessness. These shots are interspersed with close-ups of contracting muscles. The purpose of the action, however, is not depicted. The meaningless application of labor in the logic of capitalism often conjures the metaphor of Sisyphus.
THE VISCERALITY OF PRAXIS
In Happiness Building I, Chen Chieh-jen explores a certain viscerality of praxis. In his translation of Ashis Nandy’s classic of postcolonial theory, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Fred Y. L. Chiu stresses: “Unlike ‘practice,’ which semantically conveys general exercise and action, ‘praxis’ indicates words, deeds, and social practices that are grounded in a certain understanding (including the upholding of political correctness) and based on a personally selected and oriented political potential. For this reason, it is translated as jianxing: action on the basis of knowledge.”
Chen Chieh-jen’s visual work in recent years is like a map of the frustrations of Western modernity from a Taiwanese perspective. The drawing of the map has a value beyond designation. His assessment of the oppressive qualities of modern Western values is related to his personal experience, and as he likes to say, “the most personal is the most political.” His project Empire’s Borders I (2008-2009) arose from his own experience of applying for a visa to the United States, when his application was rejected due to the prejudices of the American Institute in Taiwan. He contrasted this with the unequal treatment of foreign brides at the hands of Taiwanese immigration authorities. The project pointed out the quasi-colonial inequality of Chinese-US relations while revealing the second-class legal treatment received by disadvantaged “others.” Thus it outlines the irrational applications of power and the restrictions they impose.
Mass participation in the production of Chen Chieh-jen’s films is not a creative technique or tactic. Rather, it is the artist’s means of using creative opportunity to harness the uproar of the multitudes. Collective creative labor—the mode of address—facilitates the expression of the highly heterogeneous life experiences of the multitude, in contrast to generalized relational aesthetics. Praxis itself is a kind of highly active body image; but it requires thorough consideration before action is taken. The action not only has political implications but also contains value judgments. Chen stresses that critical thinking must clearly relate to real-life considerations. In other words, his creative attitude is to reject the use of abstract political discourse to address real issues, and to manifest the dynamics of the praxis of individual bodies—for critical thinking to become the endless echo of the image as it pierces through the mechanism. (Translation by Daniel Nieh)
1. “Presentation of configuration” draws on the use of the concept “open configuration” by Tainan National University of the Arts Professor Gong Jow-Jiun in his article, “Open Configuration, Reverberating Film: On Chen Chieh-jen’s Happiness Building I: Open Scene,” in the December 2012 issue of ARTCO. Gong uses this vocabulary to express the vital flexibility of the components of Happiness Building I. Considering the work from the point of view of its production, Happiness Building I reacts to the various conditions of a given exhibition opportunity and appropriates constituent elements. Moreover, these various elements also voice correspondingly different significances. For example, Chen’s collaboration with The Cube Project Space at the end of 2012 included a three-day symposium on-site at Happiness Building I. On New Year’s Eve, there was a sound art activity that highlighted the value of the exhibition as a forum for activity beyond the cinematic installation. This article uses“presentation of configuration”to demonstrate how the exhibition of this work in Hong Kong placed a greater emphasis on the significance of its displayed aspects.